Using 3D Scanning and Printing to Study the Prehistory of Human Movement

By Victoria Lubas | June 16, 2021

 Scott Williams and his team using handheld 3D scanners on human fossils

Scott Williams and his team using handheld 3D scanners on human fossils.

Whether in the classroom, on a dig, or in a museum exhibit, anthropologists focus their work around the fossil remains of humans throughout evolution. But their work does not end at the dig site. A major element of NYU anthropologist Scott Williams‘ work consists of 3D scanning fossils from around the world, most of which examines humans’ two-leggedness as an unusual occurrence in nature. Williams’ research continues to make strides toward better understanding the way humans have moved over the past seven million years by studying the bones involved in advanced technological ways.

Specifically, Williams’ work tends to focus on the trunk, rather than legs and feet, leading him to examine fossils of the human torso, rib cage, and pelvis. As part of this work, Williams flies around the world with 3D scanning equipment in his carry-on to create exact replicas of human fossils with the help of the LaGuardia Studio (LGS).

Scanning On-Site

Williams’ 3D printing work most often begins by boarding an airplane with fragile scanners stowed away in his carry-on luggage. The lightweight but fragile devices are about the size of a clothing iron, making them much smaller than previous technology such as a “desktop laser scanner, where you put the object on a platform that rotates and it scans for 40 plus minutes.” Williams explains that within the last decade, tech has advanced to the point that “handheld scanners collect data 20 times faster than previous ones with much higher resolution,” meaning scanning something small like a vertebra would only take a few minutes and scanning something complicated, such as a skull, would take about 10 minutes.

This increased resolution means that once the scans are turned into 3D models and printed, the resulting prints are exact replicas of the original fossils, even down to the color details. This is even more accurate than the typical casting method some museums employ—which involves creating a mold from the original artifact and then using that mold to create a duplicate, or cast.

The handheld nature of these scanning devices means Williams can go to the artifacts and fossils and scan them in their original location, eliminating the need to bring the artifacts to a temporary new location for scanning. Instead, Williams visits museums and 3D scans the surface of previously-discovered fossils there, then double-checks their accuracy with calipers and additional photos before flying home to New York and printing the scans with the LaGuardia Studio. Williams expressed appreciation, saying he’s had “a great relationship with the LaGuardia Studio because they have great printers” that he otherwise wouldn’t have access to within his department. Shelly J. Smith, director of the LaGuardia Studio, expressed “the team really enjoys working with Scott and this type of research because, in a uniquely tangible way, we get to handle the past and participate in the larger cultural experience, based on the findings.”

Left: Scott Williams displays a fossil of a human skull. Right: 3D rendering of the skull after scanning

Left: Scott Williams displays a fossil of a human skull. Right: 3D rendering of the skull after scanning

Detailed but Compact

The surface scanning technology Williams uses is not only advanced in terms of devices and portability, but also in terms of memory and file space. According to Williams, the average size of the surface scan files he currently works with are 10 to 20 MB each, but a scan of the same fossils using micro-CT—an anthropological scan similar to a medical CT scan—would be 70 GB in size!

While Williams’ files are significantly easier to manage, they still require heavy-duty computers to be utilized effectively. As a result, the anthropology department uses gaming laptops for their portability and advanced RAM, graphics, and ability to manipulate 3D models. The strength of the gaming laptops allows Williams to upload his scans easily and the small file sizes allows the museums hosting the scanned fossils to access the files regardless of internet strength.

After scanning, Williams typically returns home to New York to complete the model creation process, during which he combines the different scans to build the blueprints for 3D printing a replica. This model can then be shared with the host institution through Dropbox, or with others depending on each museum’s policies. Some museums do not allow scans to be distributed because the research process is a driving form of tourism within their country.

In these cases, Williams is allowed to scan the artifacts and then LGS is allowed to print them, but decisions on distribution and access are left to the discretion of the host institutions, something “the LaGuardia Studio is very respectful of.” Smith explained, “the [LGS] team loves the ‘reveal’ that happens when production completes and we get a chance to examine the 3D printed artifacts. We’re always captivated by the greater research story.”

Williams displaying original fossils and the accompanying scans used for 3D printing.

Williams displaying original fossils and the accompanying scans used for 3D printing.

Continuing through COVID-19

When the University transitioned to remote learning, Williams’ scanning expertise came in handy once again. The graduate level course, Interpreting the Human Skeleton, normally requires students to spend several hours in the Osteology Lab, allowing them to be immersed in bone artifacts for 12 to 16 hours per week. In order to teach this course in an online format, Williams and his TA, Paola Cerrito, scanned most of the material to allow remote students to “pull the model up [on their computers] and manipulate them in 3D space, …allowing them to do the best they can with this class remotely.”

While Williams and his students are grateful they were able to continue their studies during COVID-19, they are also eager to return to in-person teaching in the fall. Williams explained that “it is best to learn from seeing and holding [artifacts]… [because] when holding you can really see size, weight” which are important data points in relation to the aging process.

Most recently, Williams’ work with the Leakey Foundation has consisted of scanning fossils in London, Paris, and Johannesburg and then using the scans to extract and collect data regarding “[the] curvature of the back, which is S-shaped, and looking at the evolution of lumbar lordosis… which is present in all hominins and necessary to upright bipeds like us.” Williams completed his most recent scanning project in January 2020—right before the coronavirus pandemic restricted all travel—so he considers himself lucky that the scanning and data collection aspects of his research haven’t been held in limbo for the pandemic’s duration.

Williams’ completed scans have allowed others to continue their research too, as students from NYU and other universities have requested access to Williams’ data while access to museums has been reduced. As the world begins to reopen and coronavirus restrictions loosen, Williams is hopeful of the chance to travel again soon, possibly to Europe in the summer of 2021 and South Africa in 2022. Having done two iterations of scans thus far while technology improved significantly, Williams would never “assume this is the height of the technology” and is looking forward to seeing how much more advanced 3D scanning can become.